Edgar Wright and JJ Abrams premiere 9 minutes of 'Scott Pilgrim' at LAFF
The Los Angeles Film Festival is underway right now, camped primarily in the LA Live facility in downtown Los Angeles, and the Regal Cinemas there is one of the main venues for the festival. I've never been in the theater before tonight, but it is apparently 1700 stories high and features a full 5000 movie screens showing everything ever. I may have those numbers slightly wrong, but that's how it feels when you're walking through it and gently being sent up spirals and spirals and spirals.
Tonight, I was there along with a capacity crowd for a look at a few minutes of Edgar Wright's new film "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World," but more than that, to look back at how Edgar got to this point where he's making this one-of-a-kind. To moderate the event, Edgar invited JJ Abrams, and it was an interesting choice. Abrams is razor-sharp, and he asks a mix of questions you'd expect and questions that simply seem to be his real in-the-moment reactions to the conversation. There are some moderators who never accomplish that, the conversational, in front of a crowd of that size, and Abrams and Edgar relaxed into it fairly quickly. It was an event that ran over two hours long, starting a little later than the scheduled 9:30 PM time, and even given that much room, it still felt like things hustled along.
The first part of the evening, discussing Edgar's life as a young film fan and a nascent filmmaker, felt like Abrams was mining information on the memories of making super 8 films with your friends as a kid, and the joy and the freedom of that. Imagine that. I wonder why that subject would interest him right now.
I've noticed something, and I think it's anecdotal at this point, but interesting nonetheless. Edgar Wright grew up in a fairly rural part of England and he didn't have a VHS player in his house until he was in his late teens. As a result, he saw movies, but mainly just contemporary films or movies on free television. He's a movie junkie now, but he wasn't one in his formative years. As a result, I think a lot of his film language is his own, and not borrowed or recycled. I've seen this in a few guys who didn't have VCRs when they were younger, and who only really started watching movies of their own choice in their late teens or early twenties. They kind of develop their own idea of how things should work. Yes, he really flipped out when he saw "Raising Arizona" and the films of Sam Raimi, but whatever stylistic signatures he learned from the people he admired, Edgar has long since turned that into his own particular visual language. I've said this over and over, and I'm amazed how often I talk to people who just don't see this: film is more than just pictures that tell a story... it is a language. The people who make the best movies, who make movies that matter and that stick to you in some way... they're people who have mastered that language and who understand how delicate it is. So many filmmakers make movies that are technically competent and professional, but that have absolutely no sense of voice. They look like movies, but the language is all wrong. Edgar is a guy who innately got it, and who speaks it so fluently that even when he's shooting on a budget and a schedule like "Spaced," what he turns out has more style and substance together than much of what A-list Hollywood churns out.
Clips were shown from "Spaced" and "Shaun Of The Dead" and "Hot Fuzz," and I loved seeing all of it on the bigscreen again. I'm about ready to break out my Blu-ray of "Shaun" finally and play it for the first time. I watched all of that stuff so many times when I first got it. It's funny... seeing that sort of crazy sold out crowd for Edgar, I felt a little like one of those indie music fans sulking in the corner because his favorite band is playing an arena show. It was the summer of 2001 when my manager handed me a couple of duped videotapes with a big piece of yellow tape on each, and written on the tape: "SPACED." I watched all 14 episodes in two days, then watched them again. Then showed them to a friend. Then another. I was evangelical about that show. I had a long history with "Shaun Of The Dead" for Ain't It Cool News, and with "Hot Fuzz" as well. I have met and spoken with Edgar many many times now, and he was exactly the same way in front of a crowd tonight as he is in casual conversation, the same way he has been for the nine years I've known him now.
It is a little spooky how perfectly suited Wright is to adapting "Scott Pilgrim" and how well his personal style, honed over the course of the prior decade, snapped into place to tell the story of Scott, Sex Bob-omb, Knives Chau, Ramona Flowers, Evil Exes, Gideon Graves, Wallace and Kim and Young Neil and Stephen Stills and all the other wonderful characters and ideas that began with the six-book comic series by Bryan Lee O'Malley (who was in the theater tonight for the event, watching from the audience). Tonight, Edgar showed us the entire Lucas Lee sequence, actually starting a little earlier than that with a scene where Scott is upset because Ramona has changed her hair color.
Michael Cera is Scott Pilgrim. That much is obvious at this point. He's not playing "Michael Cera" the way you've seen him before. I've always read Scott Pilgrim as a guy who approaches life with the same open enthusiasm as a golden retriever. He's not an idiot, but he's dense. He is given to verbal flights of nonsense that he can't help. He has a slightly manic energy that makes the character always look like he's vibrating, even when drawn standing still. It's one of the things I loved about Scott in the comic, and Cera actually gets that right. He's not himself... he's Scott Pilgrim. I still had questions about what to expect all the way up to the screening of the footage tonight. I am officially sold. Cera's done something here that should surprise even his harshest critics if they really look at his work.
Scott's angst about Ramona's haircut (he's afraid she's spontaneous, given to whims, and that she'll drop him and move on without warning) leads to angst about his own haircut (tied to angst about a bad break-up in his past), and that eventually leads to, of course, a walk in the freezing cold Toronto night. They end up stumbling onto a movie set at the castle that was used in "X-Men" and a whooooole bunch of other films, and they stop to watch, only realizing too late to do anything about it that the movie stars Lucas Lee, played by Chris Evans. As Ramona explains, Lucas was one of the earliest of the Evil Exes, from the ninth grade. MTV premiered a small bit of this scene during the Movie Awards recently, but this full scene plays like a dream. It's got a rhythm and a build and a huge pay-off. It's a skillful little mini-movie, and I would imagine the entire film must feel like this. Tight. Energetic. Visually rich. And very, very funny. The way the scene plays out and wraps up is wild, and just based on what I've seen so far, I think Kieran Culkin is going to steal this movie from everyone. He's sort of amazing as Wallace.
After the "Pilgrim" clips, there were a few minutes for Q&A from the audience. Edgar talked a bit about the process of adapting the film while the books were still being written, and he talked about the influence of musicals on the rhythms of "Scott Pilgrim." James Rocchi, who was sitting next to me, asked if there'd ever been any talk of moving the film's setting to somewhere other than Canada, and thankfully, the answer to that seemed to be no. By the time we'd asked a few questions, Abrams was forced to wrap it up. It was nearly midnight, at that point. Before the event ended, Edgar premiered one of seven new mash-ups by DJ Osymyso, built around the theme of "love," using clips from the movie and music from the soundtrack I'm not sure when those will make their online debut, but they're great. Charming.
"Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World" will be in theaters Aug. 13, and I certainly hope to lay eyes on it before that. Still... it's nice to have this sort of anticipation for something. It was also nice to see Edgar Wright celebrated and appreciated. He's exactly the sort of filmmaker I root for, and I hope this massive investment of time and heart pays off for him. I know I'm sold, and I suspect most people who were in that theater tonight are just as sold.
My thanks to the LA Film Festival for arranging that press badge, and for putting the event together.
Later today, I'll have my review of the new Tom Cruise film "Knight and Day," and then I've got a very interesting evening planned with a masked man. Keep checking back all day long to see exactly what that means.
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